Southern Hotel finally to fall

Way Back When

Changes: Hotels have stood at the corner of Light and Redwood streets for more than 200 years. Another is to replace this one.

June 05, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In a scene from Vicki Baum's potboiler novel "Grand Hotel" played out in the 1932 MGM classic film of the same name, actor Lewis Stone looks out over the crowded hotel lobby filled with the comings and goings of Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford and Jean Hersholt and wryly mutters, "Grand Hotel ... people come ... people go ... nothing ever happens."

Unlike the fictional Grand Hotel, something is sure to happen soon at Baltimore's Southern Hotel, the long-shuttered 14-story "Queen of Light Street" that opened for business in 1918 and closed its doors in 1964.

Its marquee gone, its street-level windows sealed shut with cinder blocks, the silent hotel awaits its rendezvous with the wrecking ball. It and several surrounding buildings are targeted for demolition to make way for a planned hotel and office complex.

Today, most cities, including Baltimore, have to rely upon homogenized hotels erected by chains for lodging and functions. It was different in the old days when the Southern's cornerstone was laid on March 26, 1917.

The Southern was built and financed by Abraham J. Fink, a successful 28-year-old Mount Washington businessman who had made several fortunes and was driven by a love for the hotel business. An art connoisseur, Fink also had amassed a noted collection of rare, miniature paintings, some of which he had purchased from the estate of J. Pierpont Morgan, the financier.

The site on which the Southern stands has been serving up Baltimore hospitality and a good night's sleep for well over 200 years. The first hotel was the Fountain Inn, a favorite of George Washington's that featured a huge, storied courtyard for coaches. In the mid-19th century, it was replaced by the Carrollton Hotel, later destroyed in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904.

Fink commissioned architect Otto Simonson to design the Southern, whose name was apparently suggested by Dr. Merville Hamilton Carter, a Middletown, Va., physician and president of the hotel who reaped a fortune with Resinol, an anti-itching salve and soap.

"Oddly enough, the place was not done in an American Colonial Revival motif, as the name might have suggested. No, this German architect, who designed so many post-Baltimore Fire buildings downtown, planned the place in a buff brick, with a lobby, ballroom, reception and dining rooms with much filigreed plaster work," said the Evening Sun.

On March 7, 1918, the new hotel opened its doors. The first to pick up a fountain pen and record his name in the register was E.M. Statler, "prominent hotel man," said The Sun, who was assigned to Suite No. 301-305.

"Women in gorgeous gowns flocked to the hotel with their escorts and enjoyed the dinner that was provided in the main dining room. ... A throng that filled the lobby and mezzanine balcony looked upon the gay scene," The Sun observed of the opening reception.

"But the crowd of the curious found its greatest enjoyment in watching the girl elevator operators and it could not refrain from expressing admiration at the masterly way in which they handled the cars. The girls seem able to start and stop the cars without the customary jerk that male operators are fond of giving," said the newspaper.

In its dining room and popular cafeteria, the Southern set a respectable table that leaned heavily on the same sort of Tidewater offerings to be had aboard the dining cars of the B & O and on the menus of the Old Bay Line overnight packet boats.

Another popular feature of the hotel was the Southern Roof, later known as the Spanish Villa. With its canvas awnings and trellises, it was one of the poshest nightclubs in town.

Fourteen floors above the clanging streetcar bells and roar of the traffic, patrons and lovers could watch the stars overhead while observing shipping in the harbor. They also danced to the music of Lew Becker's Orchestra, whose theme song was "In a Little Spanish Town," and listen to vocalist "blonde Mitzi O'Neill" sing the latest popular tunes.

The Southern's days, though, were numbered. On Dec. 10, 1964, a sign was posted at the registration desk: "Due to circumstances beyond our control, it is necessary that we close the hotel. ... It would be appreciated if you could vacate the premises by 5 p.m."

In 1967, the hotel was purchased by the Maritime Engineers Beneficial Association, which operated a seaman's training center there until turning off the lights for good in 1984.

At its death in 1964, the last meal prepared by the Southern's chef was a glorious nod to its illustrious past.

"The last dining-room meal it served was steamboat-pure Maryland: curried lamb with steamed rice, broiled Chesapeake Bay rockfish and Maryland crab cakes with coleslaw," reported The Sunday Sun Magazine.

Pub Date: 6/05/99

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